“Mariupolis 2”, a raw portrayal of Ukrainian civilians’ struggle for survival, was completed after the death of Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius. FRANCE 24 spoke to his partner and co-director, Hanna Bilobrova, about the film’s message and the importance of screening it in Cannes.
Russia’s war in Ukraine was once again in the spotlight at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday as an unidentified woman stormed a red carpet premiere, stripping off her clothes to reveal the words “Stop raping us” written across her torso, next to the blue and yellow colours of the Ukraine flag. It was the latest in a string of references to the plight of a war-torn country whose president opened the festival earlier this week with an emotional appeal to the power of cinema.
Films by and about Ukrainians feature prominently in this year’s line-up, directed by artists who spent the past decade chronicling war in the former Soviet bloc and warning the world about the threat of escalation. Among them was Lithuania’s Mantas Kvedaravičius, who paid with his own life for his efforts to document those of Ukrainian civilians in a time of war.
By any measure, “Mariupolis 2” is an extraordinary feat, a real-life, real-time chronicle of a devastating war being fought right now, at the other end of Europe. The tragic disappearance of its director has given added urgency to its screening in Cannes – an emotional highlight for a festival that is unfolding in the shadow of war.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Kvedaravičius shot a documentary in Mariupol, released two years later, in which he recounted its citizens’ efforts to continue their lives against the backdrop of war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas. In March of this year, as Russian tanks rolled into the city itself, he returned to Mariupol to film “Part 2” of his documentary. But he did not live to see it completed. In early April, just over two weeks after his arrival, he was captured and killed by Russian forces.
The material Kvedaravičius shot was compiled by his fiancée and co-director, Hanna Bilobrova, and their editor Dounia Sichov, in a one-month race against the clock to ensure it could be submitted for selection in Cannes. It follows a group of around 30 survivors, women, children and men above 50, who have taken refuge in the basement of a Baptist church as bombs and Russian troops close in.
“We didn’t choose the church; the church chose us,” said Bilobrova, who accompanied Kvedaravičius to Mariupol and retrieved the footage after his death. The original plan had been to reach the Mariupol theatre that served as the city’s main shelter until Russian bombs destroyed it, burying hundreds of civilians trapped inside. “The church was our second stop and after this stop we could not move,” she added. “We were literally stuck there with this community.”
At the film’s premiere in Cannes, Bilobrova fought back tears as she paid tribute to her late partner. Kvedaravičius was both a filmmaker and an anthropologist, she said, accounting for the film’s naturalistic and distinctly unspectacular take on the human experience of war.
Landscapes of destruction
“Mariupolis 2” was shot entirely on the grounds of the church and its immediate surroundings, following its temporary dwellers as they hide, wait, pray and endlessly sweep up the debris scattered around by relentless bombing. It is entirely devoid of storytelling, offering only landscapes of destruction interspersed with scenes of the everyday, in which community resilience – rather than individual characters – is the subject.
The film exposes the harrowing banality of war in a region scarred by almost a decade of conflict, in which hapless civilians discuss, in one breath, the sunny weather and the type of shell that just exploded nearby. As people scour the rubble looking for items of use, the camera reveals shocking adjacency between life and death – in one instance dwelling at length on two men as they labour to remove a generator while its owner’s dead body is in the frame.
“There’s my house,” says one man in his sixties, pointing at rubble scattered around an enormous crater, just across the road from the church. “I worked 30 years to build it, now I have nothing,” he adds. “We lived well in Soviet times,” sighs another, marvelling at the absurdity of a war fought by “morons on both sides”.
In the distance, seen through the shattered windows of bombed out buildings, columns of smoke rise in between huge factory chimneys, signs of the fierce battle raging around the Azovstal steel plant. In between the blasts and bursts of gunfire, an eerie silence prevails. There are none of the normal sounds of city life – just bombs, gunshots and dogs barking.
“We always experience war without the experience of war, because someone (tells) us that war looks like this,” said Bilobrova, reflecting on traditional portrayals of war both in fiction and in the news. “It’s a representation of war by someone else, (…) talking about war, not about people. No one is showing us people who live under war.”
“Mantas was always looking at us, at people, with great freedom and without preconceived ideas,” added Nadia Turincev, the film’s producer. “We’re happy that his vision can be seen and shared here, at the biggest film festival in the world,” she said. “It means his vision will now have a wider echo.”
‘Cinema is politics,’ Russian dissident director Kirill Serebrennikov tells FRANCE 24 in Cannes